All about atmosphere

You probably spend a lot of time worrying about what goes on in the back of the house, and you should—a quality product and a high-functioning kitchen crew are at the heart of all successful pizzerias. However, you should also remember that effective marketing is also related to controlling how people feel when they come into your store. A satisfied customer brings repeat business, and if you’re looking to drive traffic on slow days and give your customers some pleasant distractions while they wait, incorporating in-store entertainment and/or sign spinners is an option to consider.

Since 2006, Scott D’Agostino, owner of D’Agostino’s Pizza & Pub (dagsdelivers.com) in Chicago, has held a weekly Tuesday Family Night with balloon artist Smarty Pants and his face-painting partner, Miss Dena. The married duo entertains families and hands out balloons fashioned into everything from simple dogs to complex pizzas—and the kids love it. “I would say 35% of our sales on Family Night are driven by Smarty Pants,” Scott D’Agostino points out. “This idea can take days that are generally slow and make them profi table. Most kids don’t care if they get just a balloon sword or a hat—they just want to be engaged and entertained.” 

Smarty Pants himself points out that entertainers have one purpose in a restaurant setting—to make sure people are having a good time. “People come to restaurants for three reasons: food, pricing and the experience,” the balloon afi cionado explains. “I can’t control the food or pricing, but when someone comes in on Family Night, they can tell something special is going on just by seeing the kids wearing the balloon hats.” Best of all, adults also enjoy the balloons—not only getting a sculpture to take home (kids get first dibs on them), but seeing how they’re made.

At Zella’s Pizzeria (zellaspizzeria.com) in Baltimore, in-store entertainers are a way to add interest to theme nights. The restaurant’s marketing coordinator, Matt Achhammer, points out that the pizzeria’s Turkish Celebration Night would not be same without a belly dancer balancing swords on her head. “It takes things like that to create a different atmosphere and keep the customer interested in what you’re doing,” he says.

Rock On

If belly dancers and balloon artists aren’t your style, serving up live music along with your pizza is a tried-and-true way to give your restaurant an edge—although operating a pizzeria and a music venue can be very different enterprises. Whether you’re a small-town shop looking to do an open mic night or a big-city operation with substantial resources, combining good food with good music often has a direct impact on food and beverage sales. In its fi rst year of operation, The Mississippi Pizza Pub (mississippipizza.com) in Portland, Oregon, sold only about three pizzas per night, but, as owner Phillip Stanton reflects nine years later, incorporating live music turned the business around. “It had gotten to the point where we had to do something or close,” he notes. “Music just happened to be that something.” Currently, the pizzeria has two live shows every night that range from folk to blues to rock and roll, and nights with no music result in slumping sales. To shake things up, the pub also hosts a weekly spelling bee (officially dubbed The Portland Spelling Bee) with a trained moderator who keeps the program running in the same format as the National Spelling Bee. “It’s actually our most popular event,” Stanton notes. “Anytime someone writes about the shop, he mentions it.” But this entrepreneur says the restaurant is a pizzeria first and an entertainment venue second—75% of all sales come from pizza. While music and competitive spelling creates a buzz, the Mississippi remains a cozy venue (seating 70 at maximum) where good food is always at the forefront.

Indeed, many owners don’t expect to make a lot of money on cover charges or ticket sales. “The biggest misconception is that venues make money from booking big acts,” says John Kinsner, talent buyer for The Walnut Room (thewalnutroom.com), a pizzeria and concert venue in downtown Denver. “Often, venues have minimal concessions, but what makes our store interesting is we manage to pull off both the venue and the restaurant effectively; one feeds business into the other.” With both local musicians and big names such as Howie Day and The Fray, this operation draws Denver’s diverse population with four to seven shows a week. “The restaurant and the bar dominate the business during the day, and the concert hall dominates our night crowd,” notes Kinsner. However, to avoid the danger of warding off dinner crowds on show nights, The Walnut Room offers soundproofed walls and the ability to shut off the restaurant from the venue when needed. “The first couple of years were tough, because we were still trying to figure out the store’s identity and build a reputation for ourselves,” he concludes. We’re a pizzeria and a venue—it’s hard to say which one comes before the other, and that’s our charm.”

Learn the Ropes

Finding the right entertainers is like stocking your kitchen with quality ingredients—you generally get what you pay for. “You should always work with reliable professionals who charge a fair rate for their services,” Smarty Pants says. “Every so often, I hear about a restaurant hiring someone to work just for tips. This rarely works out and leaves the restaurant with bad feelings about the promotion.” Most entertainers are always looking for work, so ask everyone you know (even your customers) whom they’ve hired for past events. If you want to start a regular event, have patience—it might take a while for the news to spread. And think long-term, because offering a regular paycheck is an attractive proposal for most entertainers. When D’Agostino decided to stick with offering balloon toys on Family Night, he and Smarty Pants negotiated a lower rate. 

If live music is in your future, Kinsner’s advises is to hiring a professional to coordinate the talent. “Too often, I see restaurant owners go out and try to book entertainment with no experience, and the job is a failure right out of the gate. The entertainment industry is not like running a restaurant—you want someone to make sure the room is designed right, from both an aesthetic and a production standpoint. The reason everyone wants to play at The Walnut Room is, the bands sound great when they play here.”

Shake It Up

If you run a pickup and/or delivery operation, in-store entertainment may not be practical, but having a man on the street can help your menu sneak into the minds of those potential customers who drive or walk past your storefront. Brad Michael, marketing manager for Cutting Edge Pizza, a Hartford, Connecticut-based franchisee group of Little Caesars locations, with 47 stores on the East Coast, points out that driving sales with sign spinners—or “shakerboarders,” as the chain calls them—is an effective, cost-friendly tool when tapping into the rush-hour market. “We use them at 95% of our stores,” he says. “For store openings, they’re great; on a day-to-day level, you’ve got to make sure that what you’re doing is relevant to your target audience. From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., most people haven’t made dinner plans yet, so that’s why our guys are holding signs that say ‘Dinner’s Ready.’” Michael points out that laws on storefront advertising vary from city to city, so you should confirm with your local zoning enforcement or city council representative to avoid a warning or citation. Also, stick to common sense when evaluating safety issues. In the summer, you don’t want to have your employees outside for too long—especially if you have them dressed in a foam suit. For nighttime promotions, reflective vests are also helpful to keep your spinners as safe as possible. Most importantly, remember that your spinner is supposed to be placing your store’s best foot forward. “It’s tough for me to see a guy just standing there with a sign, no energy and no purpose,” Michael says. “I tell my guys to figure out target times and keep the energy up for them.” 

In-store entertainment is as diverse a field as pizza itself. But, like anything else, your entertainment can naturally develop as long as you decide how to project your store’s identity. If you cater to families, you’ll take a different approach than the owner who targets college students. Don’t be afraid to spend a little extra money on the front end, because a successful special can bring enough repeat business to justify the expense—and you’re more likely to get there hiring a professional with references than an untested amateur. And, if you’re looking to hire an employee to woo customers in from the street, make sure he’s energetic and represents your pizzeria well. When people are excited about coming into your store, the pizza can speak for itself. Sometimes, successful business is all about the vibe.

Andrew Abernathy is PMQ’s associate editor.